Gary Irving: Using Continuous Lighting for Depth-of-Field Portraits

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I like to capture shallow depth-of-field portraits with wide-open apertures by using continuous lighting. Most often in-studio, I photograph figures I will later place into photographic composites. For these, I shoot with an aperture of f8 or f11 to create an even and sharp focus for the entire subject. This is ideal for removing the figure and placing it seamlessly into a composition. Sometimes, though, it’s more desirable to use selective focus and to create a pleasing bokeh (or blurred) effect for other parts of the composition.

In order to achieve this effect, I am using the Photoflex StarLite: Medium Digital Kit, which contains a tungsten continuous light and medium sized soft box. Using the SilverDome soft-box, I am able to completely control the light and shoot with a wide-open aperture (in this case f2.0).


In addition to achieving a shallow depth-of-field, this technique also makes it easy to use other light sources, such as a projector. Powerful and simple to modify, this single light provides an ample source for creative shooting. In this case I am using a projector to create a backdrop behind each subject.


Working with continuous lighting allows for precise control. In this shoot, I was able to dial in the focus to highlight dramatic parts of this Iron Maiden mask while projecting an image on a screen behind the subject. These two effects, use of ambient or introduced light and selective focus, come together in this photograph in a way that would be impossible with strobes. What other kinds of light could you add to a composition? We also tried candles, flashlights, and cell phones.


Another benefit to working with continuous lighting is the ability to study the shadows and to capture the exact lighting situation you want. For product photography, this kind of control is very useful. Opening up my camera to f2.0 is not something I usually do with strobes, but with a continuous light it is very easy to get exactly the right light in your shot. The best part of working with continuous light is that what you see is what you get.


Notice the extreme shallow depth-of-field in the image below. The focus is on the dramatic eye and the rest of the face is pleasantly blurred. This directs the viewer to the imagined gaze of the subject.


In the shot below, I was able to light the mask and project an image onto the backdrop. Additionally there is another subject in the background, lit with a cell phone screen. With a shallow depth-of-field, the mask looks more realistic than the human figure behind it. Creating these kinds of compositions would be impossible without continuous lighting.


For anyone looking to add an exciting approach to their studio lighting system, the SilverDome soft box offers a range of creative methods of working, including: creating shallow depth of field, working with ambient and introduced lights.

Santa Cruz based photographer Gary Irving is a multimedia artist who is known for his highly stylized narrative photo-composites. Having grown up in a small Welsh town, called Swansea, Irving moved to Santa Cruz in 1994 and has since established himself as one of the premiere visual artists working in digital medium in Central California. Combining the digital and the analog through photography, sculpture, and narrative, Gary Irving is making compelling and striking contemporary multi-media art.

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